by Darcy Alvey
They pull into the small parking lot at the top of the mountain. Although the summit is deep in winter’s first snowing, the husband and wife are blind to the burden of tree boughs sagging with the weight of last night’s storm. White drifts plowed high to the side of the black ribbon road go unmentioned. They fail to see the couple with backpacks heading for a hike or children using the vehicles as shields in a ferocious snowball fight.
The two are at the apex of a long drive through back country, a drive peppered by bouts of bickering followed by angry silences. It’s all so petty, they each think–who should take out the trash, whose job to fold the laundry. Was it his or her turn to walk the dog? Life should be simpler since the children moved out they tell each other. When did their relationship become so ordinary, they ask. What happened to the boy and girl who could spend hours gazing at the stars, pointing out constellations?
After a long moment staring at nothing, the wife opens her door. “I’m going to walk ahead while you stretch your legs here,” she says and asks him to wait a bit before following with the car. “I need a little air.”
“Couldn’t hurt,” he says.
The wind cools her face after the heated Honda. Taking careful steps through the beginning melt, she watches a young woman bound deer-like up a snowbank and take a photo of the monolithic rock formation looming above. Was I ever that agile, she wonders. Farther on two small girls build “Frosty” in an open space. They use a twig for his mouth and pebbles for his eyes. For the nose, one forms a cone from a piece of tree bark and wiggles it in. The other puts her red beanie on his head. Holding hands, they dance around their construction. Watching them, the wife recalls an earlier time when he and she built their own snowman on a similar drive. They named theirs “Ferdinand,” after the cartoon bull who would rather smell flowers than participate in a bull fight.
She also remembers loud passionate conversations in those early days. About big things. About joining the Peace Corps and where they’d like to serve–Africa maybe; about Martin Luther King and the power of nonviolence; they wrestled with the pros and cons of Vietnam and what to do if he got drafted; the pill and illegal abortions; how many children they would have; what their first home would look like. Where are those two people, she wonders. When did their life together become so small?
Rounding a turn shadowed by a giant cedar, the wife finds herself stranded on a pie-sized bit of asphalt in the middle of a frozen patch of road. Bending she touches the ice with her hand–hard and smooth as marble. No foothold to retrace her steps. She decides to slide forward to safety on her slick-soled loafers.
She later describes what happens as a fall of comic proportions. A pratfall. Chevy Chase would have been proud, she says. She comes to sitting upright on the frosted pavement, legs splayed, facing downhill as if appreciating at leisure the rich valley view. Stunned by the shock of the tumble, she takes stock. Her back seems fine and her head doesn’t hurt. Thank you, God, she thinks. Now to get the hell off the road before a vehicle comes along. But her left arm does not respond. Looking down she sees an indentation where her wrist should be, hand tethered loosely by flesh and soft tissue. She begins losing consciousness. Must stay sitting so cars see me, she thinks. Please see me, cars.
He leans against the hood of the Honda watching through the pines for her to appear on a lower stretch of road. Where is she, the husband wonders after several minutes. She should be in sight by now. Waiting, he remembers the first time he saw her come into view. It was at a friend’s party and she walked in alone. She was tall and skinny as a light post but there was something about her eyes, something eager, like a high school valedictorian on graduation day. He had helped clean after the party just to spend time with her. What a force she was, wanting to march on Washington for women’s rights, protest nuclear weapons, travel the back roads of America like Jack Kerouac. She could recite Kennedy’s inaugural address word for word and was still hopeful enough to believe every sentence.
Back in the Honda he drives slowly, squeezing the steering wheel, his eyes sweeping one side of the road and then the other. Coming around the curve he spots something in the center of the asphalt. Closer. It’s her–seated, head bowed, arms dangling to each side. She looks like a discarded Raggedy Ann doll. Exposed.
Stopping beside her, he calls through the open window. “You alright? Honey, can you hear?”
Even though her husband is only a few feet over, he sounds windy woods away. “No,” she says, reemerging, without lifting her head. “I’ve broken my wrist and can’t move.”
He opens his door and starts for her but slips and slides as she did. No good. He crawls back to the idling car. “Blankets for traction,” he says, and builds a plaid flannel and terry towel bridge. Slow, with him on her good side, they cross his soft path. She lands quaking in the cupped passenger seat, cradling her shattered wrist with the palm of her other hand.
“Do you remember Ferdinand?” she asks when he sits next to her.
“Our snowman,” he says, easing into gear. Together they make their way through x-rays, surgeon, permanent metal plate, three casts, and Oxycodone. Lots of Oxycodone.